Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Lawrence Parish, New Bedford, MA
25th Anniversary of Sister M. Ajay, MC & Sister Lee Fuong, MC
Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
December 12, 2002
1) Six years ago, when he was preparing to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a priest, at the request of countless faithful and priests throughout the world, the Holy Father agreed to write a book describing his five decades of priestly vocation, the joys, the hardships, and the meaning of the priesthood. The book turned out to be one-hundred pages long, but the theme of every one of those pages, His Holiness tells us early in the reflections, was captured concisely and appropriately in the title of the book: Gift and Mystery. The priestly vocation, he said, is a gift and a mystery.
2) What he said about his vocation to the priesthood is likewise applicable to your vocation to this beautiful religious life, Sr. Ajay and Sr. Lee. With the appreciation and the wonder of 50 years, the Pope says that the story of a vocation is known above all to God. Listen to the Holy Father: “At its deepest level, every vocation … is a great mystery; it is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual. … A vocation is a mystery of divine election: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ … ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you….’ These inspired words cannot fail to move deeply the heart…[and]… human words are insufficient to do justice to the mystery.” A vocation is both a gift and a mystery.
3) It’s first, as the Pope says, a gift and mystery of divine election. In the great event of the Incarnation — so beautifully depicted in this Church right next to the picture and memento of Mother Teresa’s visit — God did not say to the Angel Gabriel, “Go, find me any young virgin.” Instead, the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a very specific person in a very specific place on earth, to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a particular teenage girl engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. With the same specificity, God went to an Albanian farm to call a young girl named Agnes Bojaxhiu to follow him and eventually to found your congregation. With the same specificity he sent his angels to Singapore to call you, Sr. Lee Fuong, and to India to call you, Sr. Ajay. He didn’t say, “I just need two more Missionaries of Charity,” but he placed in your soul from the beginning this vocation, as he did with the Blessed Mother in her Immaculate Conception, or with the prophet Jeremiah whom we heard, or the prophet Ezechiel, or the precursor St. John the Baptist.
4) Faced with such a calling, you might have deemed yourself, or still do, unworthy. St. Juan Diego certainly did. When the Blessed Mother appeared to him on Tepeyac Hill in December 1531, he was a simple, humble, 57 year-man who was known for walking with his head down and shuffling his feet. One day as he was heading 15 miles one way to Mass, he heard someone calling him from a hill. “Juanito,” “Dieguito,” “Come here!” He climbed the rocky, cold hill, where at the top he saw our Lady brilliantly shining. Our Lady announced she was on a mission of mercy and was sending him as her emissary to Bishop Zumárraga of Mexico City with the instruction to build a basilica on Tepeyac Hill. Juan obeyed. He went immediately, in his simple peasant’s outfit, to the episcopal residence, where he was forced to wait for hours in an outdoor courtyard. Eventually the bishop received him, treated him with kindness, but basically, despite Juan’s obvious sincerity, as a little deluded. The bishop said to him upon departing, “Come, see me again,” but Juan felt like a complete failure.
5) He returned immediately to Our Lady on Tepeyac Hill and said that he had failed. “I beg you, Noble Lady,” Juan addressed her, “to entrust this message to someone of importance, someone well-known and respected, so that your wish will be accomplished. For I am only a lowly peasant and you, my Lady, have sent me to a place where I have no standing. Forgive me if I have disappointed you for having failed in my mission.” The Virgin smiled tenderly on him and said, “Listen to me, my dearest son, and understand that I have many servants and messengers whom I could charge with the delivery of my message. But it is altogether necessary that you should be the one to undertake this mission and that it be through your mediation and assistance that my wish should be accomplished. I urge you to go to the Bishop again tomorrow. Tell him in my name and make him fully understand my disposition, that he should undertake the erection of the teocalli (temple) for which I ask. And repeat to him that it is I in person, the ever Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, who send you.”
6) Juan went again. He knew what the bishop’s servants would think. He feared that they would set the guard dogs on him. He was greeted with ill-concealed exasperation. He was told the bishop was busy with more important matters. But he persisted and finally wore down the servants’ resistance, although he had to wait several hours in the frigid outdoor courtyard. When he finally met the bishop again, he repeated the message of Our Lady with all the fervor at his command and with many tears. The bishop asked some questions. He was moved by Juan’s sincerity, but he wasn’t going to build a church in a desolate spot just on the basis of one Indian’s unproven testimony. As an attempt to be sure that he was not suffering from some form of self-delusion, he asked him for a special secret sign from Our Lady. Juan obediently left immediately to ask for the sign.
7) When Juan arrived back at Tepeyac, the Virgin told him to come back tomorrow to receive the sign to bring the bishop. That sign was flowers growing on the top of the very stony Tepeyac Hill in the middle of December, including special Castillian roses, which cannot grow in that temperature, in that type of soil, and which had never been seen in Mexico. Juan was instructed to bring them back to the bishop in his tilma, or outer parka. When the bishop’s servants tried to get him to open his tilma, some of the flowers fell to the ground while others seemed to melt into the tilma. They brought him into the bishop and when Juan opened up his tilma, the bishop saw the roses from his native Castilla as well as the image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which we have to this day. Juan thought there were all types of others who would have been more fitting messengers to bring such an important message from so important a person, but the Blessed Mother chose him and she helped him fulfill the mission.
8) Well, Sisters, you, too, might feel yourself unworthy, but God has chosen you with an even more important message and an even more difficult audience. Juan was sent by the Virgin to a bishop who deeply believed in God with the message to build a Church dedicated to her on Tepeyac Hill. YOU have been chosen and sent by God himself to a world in which many do not believe to communicate the even-more important message of the gift and mystery of God’s burning love. You might think others are more capable. You might think at times that you’ve failed. But God has chosen you, he wanted you, and he himself will help you, as the Virgin helped St. Juan Diego.
9) And we rejoice this morning that you responded to God, as Mary herself did in Nazareth, as Juan Diego did in Mexico City, “Fiat!” “I am the servant of the Lord: let it be done to be according to your word.” You said yes. In your vows, you have renewed that fiat many times over. We rejoice to be with you today when you say “yes” to this gift and mystery of the Lord one more time.
10) But this is not just a gift and mystery of divine election, a mysterious gift which you receive. It’s also a gift and mystery you’re called to become and to share. As Jesus says in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “What you have received as a gift, give as a gift.” You’re called to share this gift with others, just as Mary did. Today in this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we celebrate that event when Mary herself brought the mysterious gift of Christ to the indigenous Mexican people and to the Americas. Mary appeared to Juan, as we see in the image left on his tilma, as a pregnant woman. She was pregnant with Christ, about to be born in a completely new way in the Americas. Just as in the Visitation, she brought Jesus to her cousin Elizabeth and Jesus made John the Baptist leap for joy in St. Elizabeth’s womb, so the Virgin of Guadalupe was taking Jesus with haste to the Mexican people, so that Jesus could make them leap again, to leap in joy over God’s abundant love.
11) Your mission, like Mary’s, is to bring this gift and mystery of God’s love to others. But not just to any others whom you choose. You’re called to bring this message of God’s love to those whom many others refuse to love. Mary brought this message to the indigenous Mexican indians, for whom many of the Spanish conquistadores had little love and respect. You’re sent out to bring the great news of God’s love to those whom many others in the world fail to love. St. John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate in two days, had a beautiful saying, “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.” Into situations where there is little or no love, God is putting YOU as LOVE, so that everyone else may find love. With pregnant mothers and the unborn, who are so easily discarded and unwanted, God puts you as love, so that all of us can discover love, for the child, for the mother, for God. With the terminally-ill, with AIDS patients, with those about whom so few care, God puts you as love, so that they can find that God loves them immeasurably, no matter what choices they made, with the love of the Father of the Prodigal Son. With those who seem crazy and mentally ill, God sends you to make them feel and find love, as I used to watch you do, Sr. Ajay, when we would visit the mental hospitals together in Toronto. To those who seem worthless, unproductive, too old, too sick, God places you as the heart of His Mystical Body. With drug addicts, with the poorest of the poor, you are the tangible living reminder that Christ loved them enough to die for them and that you, in Christ, love them enough to live for them, to die to yourself for them. And they discover this greatest news ever through you. We can paraphrase what St. Teresa of Avila once said to her sisters: The Lord has no feet on earth now but yours to go to care for the downtrodden. He has no hands on earth to tenderly nurse people back to health or to lend a charitable hand. He has no voice on earth but yours to proclaim his own saving name, “Jesus,” to those who have never heard it pronounced with love, to whisper the good news to those who live in despair. Dorothy Day, who worked with the poor in America, used to say, very challengingly, “You love God to the extent you love the person you love the least.” In your loving the poor, the downtrodden, the needy, those whom the world finds difficult to love, you are showing the extent of the love of God. God is placing you as love there, so that everyone else may find them as loveable.
12) Your mission is to say to those who are down, “You are so much greater than even you think you are, because God loves you!” Here at the Church dedicated to St. Lawrence, it is hard not to think back to his showdown with the troops of the emperor Valerian in August of 258. On August 6, 258, Valerian’s troops caught Pope St. Sixtus II and the Roman Christians celebrating Mass in the Catacombs of St. Callistus. They murdered the Pope and most of his followers, but they let St. Lawrence, a deacon, go free, with the instructions to have three days to round up all of the Church’s treasure, the books and the vessels. Much as Hitler tried to do with the Jews before he killed them, so Valerian’s henchmen were trying to get their hands on whatever wealth the Church had, as well as to get their hands on the Church’s books, so that liturgies would be impossible. St. Lawrence left with those instructions. Over the next few days, Lawrence assembled all of the wealth of the Church. When Valerian’s soldiers came to collect the booty, they entered a courtyard filled with the disheveled Roman poor. They asked Lawrence where the Church’s riches were, and Lawrence dramatically pointed to the poor. The Church’s treasure is the poor. You help the whole world to see this, that the poor are not a burden but a treasure. They are a treasure, they are a great gift, because they are in fact Christ in a disguise. And in loving and serving them, not counting the cost, you become, with Christ’s own help, the gift you’re called to be as a missionary of charity. “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” You have brought love to your work and you have indeed found love there — and the whole Church with you has rediscovered that unfathomable treasure.
13) Mother Teresa used to say that the Lord doesn’t ask you to be successful, but to be faithful. We rejoice today that you have been faithful over these past 25 years. As great as the dignity of the religious vocation is — as great as the help that God gives you through this community and through the Church — it doesn’t change the fact that you remain human and therefore frail. So what’s the secret of true fidelity? We could have each of you come up here and give your own take on it, but I’d like to take us back to the first missionaries the Christ himself sent out. The word “apostle” literally means “one having been sent,” and we can look at the secret of fidelity in the apostles’ initial success and failure. The day after Christ commissioned them during the Last Supper in the Upper Room, every member of the first missionary band abandoned the Lord save one. The only one to stay faithful was St. John. We can reflect for a minute on what was his secret to stay faithful to the Lord when all of the others abandoned him so soon after their commissioning. He stayed faithful because he stood by Mary at the foot of the Cross of the Lord. The Cross and Mary are both absolutely essential elements to your religious life and your fidelity.
14) First, the Cross. You’ve had and will have the Cross in your life. You know it. Jesus did not call you to an easy life, but a noble adventure, which requires great effort. The Cross is not a symbol of pain, but a symbol of the love that makes even all the pain Christ suffered in his passion and death bearable. For your own vocation, the Cross is the key to your love. Your willingness to accept whatever difficulties the Lord gives to you, embracing them out of love, is what turns the coal of your life into the precious diamond of God’s love. The Cross is given ultimately, just as it was to Jesus, so that you might die, die to yourself, so that Christ may rise again. The Cross is given to you as a gift so that you might be therefore able to give your life for Jesus and others. “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus calls you to this greater love through the Cross. So love the Cross and love Jesus on the Cross and be there with Him at the foot of the Cross each day, where you will receive from him his own loving thirst for others, which will help you to make his desires your desires, his fidelity until death your own until the very end, his own burning self-giving charity for others your inner furnace. The Cross is the key that opens up for you the treasure of God’s love.
15) But St. John received his strength to remain at the Cross from the Blessed Mother, from imitating her love. He stood astride Mary at the foot of the Cross as together they beheld the enormous sufferings Christ bore on the Cross. As a Missionary of Charity, you will witness extraordinary sufferings and grief from the persons and families you will meet and serve. Some will be suffering because they’re living, like the Prodigal Son, in the pigsties of sin. Others will seem to be living luckless 21st century versions of the life of Job, who have suffered great loss or violence, who live in unbelievable poverty, famine, war, hatred, malice. Like so many of our contemporaries, you may too, on occasion, ask yourself how a God who is Love can allow such suffering to happen. On those occasions, when you witness such difficult hardships, stand aside the Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross and behold Christ’s sufferings, and then understand the sufferings you witness within the context of the suffering and death of the Lord, which destroyed death and gave suffering meaning. Contemplate those sufferings in your heart, as Mary still contemplates them in her pierced one. While Jesus hung upon the Cross for you, Sr. Ajay & Sr. Lee Fuong, and for all those he sent you to help him save and love, he said to that faithful disciple there with his own mother, “Behold your mother!” And he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” The same Lord says to you again today: “Behold your mother!” And to her in heaven, “Behold your daughters.”
16) And that mother now looks on you with eyes of such tender love. You are in her eyes right now. Beginning about 50 years ago, the very year your community was founded, scientists and photographers started looking more carefully at this image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was still as brilliant as ever, miraculously bonded to a coarse tilma with a natural life-span of only twenty years. When they photographed Mary’s eyes and enlarged them many times over, they made a startling discovery: that in her eyes are three figures. When techniques improved to increase the resolution of those enlargements, the images in her eyes seemed to match contemporary portraits of St. Juan Diego, of the Bishop’s Spanish-Aztec translator and of an auxiliary Bishop in Mexico City in 1531, who were all present in the room when the image on the tilma first became visible. They constituted the apple of her eyes. Their image in her eyes was exactly that which we’d see in living eyes. When light was shown into her eyes, it was refracted like normal human eyes, not like even the most life-like eyes in master paintings. This is an incredible mystery. The application, today, is that YOU are the apple of her eyes as well. How proud she must be of you! She was with you the day you were baptized. She was with you the day you received her Son for the first time. She’s been with you whenever you’ve received his mercy. She was with you when you received your vocation, when you responded, when you made your vows for the first time and put on the sari, when you made your final vows. She’s with you again today.
17) Doubtless she’s interceding with her Son for you right now, just as she interceded with Him for the couple at the wedding feast of Cana. Before the couple was ever aware they had a problem, she knew they needed something and went to her Son, saying, “They have no wine.” Jesus couldn’t refuse. So, today, she, with a face beaming with maternal love, gratitude and pride, must be saying to her Son, “See Sr. Ajay in St. Lawrence, she needs x.” “See Sr. Lee Fuong, she has no y.” “They need this.” Without your even being aware of it, she’s right now interceding with Jesus for the graces she knows you’ll need to be faithful to him — which will be your success! — today, tomorrow and until the end. Jesus can’t refuse her. Like St. John at the foot of the Cross from which Jesus thirsted so much, take His mother again into your home and learn from her for she will always lead you to her Son.
18 ) Your life is a gift and a mystery of the Reedemer. We rejoice this morning that you have embraced the gift and the mystery and we ask the Divine Lord, through his Mother, the Virgin of Tepeyac, to give you all you need to grow ever more into the mystery of His divine love, which is your most beautiful vocation. For it was the vocation of Christ, who was a Missionary of Charity, sent by God the Father. It was the vocation of the Virgin of Tepeyac, who was a Missionary of Charity to the whole continent of America. What a gift! What a mystery! What a vocation! And it is yours, sisters. Today, through me, God says to you like he said to the young virgin in Narareth, your spiritual Mother, “Hail, O Highly Favored Daughter. The Lord is with you. [Therefore] Blessed are YOU among all women!”